Jun
07
2009

Observations on Colombia

It’s been fun watching the tracker count down the latitude these last few weeks as I near the equator. I’m now only 1 degree North!
As I prepare to cross over into Ecuador, here are some random things I’ve noticed or learned about Colombia in my time here.

Re-reading this list, I realize a lot of it is just plain bitching. I thought about deleting a lot of it, but I’m really trying not to censor myself on the blog – for it to be an accurate record of my travels, it needs to be truthful. The fact is, I really do like this country, or I wouldn’t have spent the last four months (how did that happen?) here, as longtime readers have hopefully been able to tell from past postings. There are just some things that get on my tits.

There is an astounding variety of original music being produced and consumed in Colombia. This was especially noticeable coming as I did from Central America, where everyone solely listens to Mexican pop – there is next to no original music being produced in those countries. It’s the complete opposite here. You turn on the television to discover eight music video channels, only one of which is MTV. All the rest are locally produced videos, with each channel specializing in a different genre. On the Atlantic coast, they play cumbia; in the northeast, vallenato; in the Andes, bambuco. Only three of dozens more distinct musical styles native to Colombia. Then there is the embracing of other musical styles, from salsa to reggaeton to rock – all recreated in local style.

Being a still somewhat “developing” country, Colombia has not signed on yet to the consumer culture of the U.S. as it relates to throwing something away when it breaks and buying a new one. In the center of every city in Colombia you’ll find an enormous array of repair shops, each specializing in a different appliance. Radios, TVs, cell phones, fans, lamps, stereos, computers, DVD players, clocks, toasters, everything gets repaired, reused, recycled. I keep thinking of how we could get first-world “trash” into the hands of the third-world who has the incentive and the ability to use it. A win-win for everyone, including the planet.

I had a fun time walking around Manizales trying to get my travel speaker fixed (which died two days after receiving it from the States). The cool thing was that I knew I actually had a chance of getting it fixed. If I were living in any North American or European city, I would have said forget it – it’s going to cost more to repair it than to buy a new one, even if they’d agree to look at it for a reasonable fee. Here, they didn’t want any money unless they were actually able to fix it. In the end it turned out to be the main chip which they didn’t have a replacement for, but I was impressed with the attention to quality and the skill of these tradesmen as they metered and tested the electronics.
Now electronics might be beyond the ability of most people to repair, but when a simple appliance breaks in the house, or the gutter needs repairing, or the door is falling off it’s jamb, I posit that most North Americans will call a specialist, whereas most Latin Americans will do the repair themselves. George impressed me in this way in this story I told from El Salvador.

It was only fairly recently that we lost the ability, or incentive, to repair things ourselves. Until the mid 70’s, every home in America had a workbench. You’d put your broken hairdryer on it, and dad would repair it. We had one when I was a kid, and I’m not that old. With the technology revolution we invented the media toolbox, but forgot about the physical toolbox. This is one of the reasons I question the race of countries towards becoming “developed” nations. A society ends up losing a lot that they don’t realize they’re losing in this race.

What’s encouraging for America is the resurgence of the DIY culture that never went away in developing nations. Beginning most notably with the Whole Earth Catalog in the 60’s and building steam today with things like Make Magazine and the Maker Faire, and spurred along by the down economy, people are realizing again the intrinsic value in making or repairing things themselves. There was an excellent essay in the Times a few weeks ago about this subject.

Three million people have been displaced by the war in this country – that’s higher than anywhere else in the world, including Iraq and Sudan. Colombia has the world’s worst refugee problem, according to the U.N. Right-wing militias and leftist guerrillas, both fueled by cocaine profits, engage in a dirty war in which the principal victims are the poor. Besides the 40,000 combatants killed over the years, 1,600 innocent civilians have been murdered, people whom army soldiers pretended were guerillas in order to get their “kill figures” up. Soldiers dressed the civilians in fatigues after the fact or put a gun into their hands after massacreing them. The International Criminal Court is investigating, and will begin monitoring the army starting in November.

Either I’m fantastically, irresistibly attractive, or people have no compunction of openly staring. I was raised with the belief that staring is rude, and to mind your own business. Apparently that’s not true here. Anytime I walk into a shop or open my mouth, everyone else in the place has to stop what they’re doing and stare at the gringo. They accompany the stare with that up-and-down swipe of the eyes that I find incredibly judgmental. It’s really annoying. Sometimes when it happens out on the street, I’ll glare back. But that doesn’t really stop it, they just keep staring. So I’m thinking of changing my tact to the one that Arnie employs whenever somebody stares at her – in a friendly, loud gay voice, she says, “HI!”. People can’t help but respond positively. Turns their frown upside down.

I’m told that if the Olympics had a category for gossiping, Colombians would win hands down every time. Sometimes it’s hard to get a word in edgewise or get the attention of shopkeepers, they’re so busy discussing the private lives of whomever just walked by.

Cuisine: some of you foodies have been asking about it. For the most part I’m not partial to Colombian cuisine, as it tends to be quite basic and without any spices. There is a lot of mystery meat, they hide the vegetables, and deep fry everything else. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. There are of course gourmet restaurants in the large cities, but I tend to not want to spend the money nor eat alone at those places, so I’m usually eating at cafeterias or inexpensive restaurants alongside regular Colombians.
The vegetable issue is a strange one, since you see an amazing variety in the markets. But I guess they feel they can’t just chop them up and serve them into what I would call a salad. A salad to them is less vegetables and more other things like mayonnaise and meat. What vegetables there are are invariably shredded beyond recognition.
It’s usual to have several starches on a plate along with your meat. Typically this would be rice, potatoes, and plantains. No wonder so many people have bellies.

Mondongo is a popular soup made with intestines. You can imagine how it smells. The intestine stores shit, why would we eat it??
Arepas are the Andean equivalent to the Mesoamerican tortilla, or more accurately, to the Salvadoran pupusa. I’m not too fond of them – even though it’s basically the same ingredients, I prefer the thinness and flavor of tortillas.

It’s rare to find Hass avocados here (the type that is most common in North America), which I fell in love with in Guatemala. The avocados here are about 3x larger with a smooth skin, and are much less flavorful.

There are an amazing range of fruits in the markets, most of which don’t have English names since they’re not exported. Juices made from these fruits are one of the real pleasures of life down here.

Aguapanela is condensed sugarcane dissolved into hot water. In the mountains they use it as the water for making coffee. The flavor reminds me of winter when we were kids.. mom would send us outside with a plate to scoop up a mound of snow. Once we’d brought it back in she would drizzle hot maple syrup onto it. Delicious.
Guarapo is a similar drink but served cold, often with lime juice. Yum.
Aguardiente is the local firewater. It is made from fermented sugarcane and flavored with anise. Picture a cross between ouzo/pastise and cachaça.
Chicha is a firewater made from fermented maize. I haven’t had any yet, but expect I will in the coming months since it’s popular in the Andes. There are different ways of making chicha. Sometimes it’s made from yucca, which is chewed (by someone) until softened, and the resulting mixture of yucca, saliva, and water is left to ferment for days until it’s the correct proof of alcohol that is desired. Then it’s sold to unsuspecting foreigners!

Many people drink hot chocolate instead of coffee with breakfast. The hot chocolate here is delicious, it’s made with real rich chocolate, hot milk not water, cinnamon, and sometimes other spices.
Breakfast is typically scrambled eggs and a starch like arepas or bread. Confusingly, the word “perico” is used to describe scrambled eggs as well as coffee with a little milk. So you can have a perico with your pericos.

The bakeries produce bread and other baked goods that taste stale to me. Clearly it’s what the people want, or they wouldn’t do it this way – it’s not like they’re not capable of baking fresh, soft croissants, breads, and such – they choose not to. The only bakery I’ve found to have palatable offerings was owned by a Frenchman. They also don’t really do baked goods as we know them, like cookies or pies. The cookies are more like biscuits, dry and not sweet. The sweet desserts are over-the-top sweet, sugary cakes with a ton of frosting.

Any liquid in a bottle is drunk with a straw. Bottled water, juice, soda, even beer. As someone with an aversion to straws, I find this behavior bizarre.
It’s impossible to find pure fruit juice unadulterated with sugar, sucralose, water, and other crap. Aren’t oranges sweet enough that you don’t need to add sugar?

While bottled water is common, so is bagged water. This is a small (or large) sealed bag filled with water. You tear off a corner with your mouth and sip. Obviously you can’t really set it down, but it is much better for the environment (and cheaper).

KFC-type places give you plastic gloves to eat your fried chicken with so you don’t get all greasy. Smart! Although it looks kinda funny, like you’re handling your food with gloves because it’s not sanitary.

I love the street food. Rather, I love that there is such a thing as street food, which I did not grow up with. When you’re stumbling home drunk at 3am and nothing is open but you just need a little starch and grease in your belly, you can always find a cheap meal on almost any corner. And not only empanadas or other fried food – sliced mangos (both unripe green ones with salt and fresh lime as well as ripe yellow ones), pineapples, and other fruit are sold on most corners for a quick, cheap, healthy snack.

Casinos are really popular in this country. Sometimes you’ll even see multiple casinos on the same block. Large and fancy with table games and entertainment, or just hole-in-the-wall places with only slot machines. I suppose this raises a lot of capital for the state. But just like the lottery in developed nations, it unfairly targets uneducated (read: poor) people who can least afford it. One of my favorite quotes: “Lottery is taxation for the statistically challenged.”

I always thought I would like to try living in a developing country, but now I’m not so sure. All the things I enjoy most in life – contemporary art, cutting-edge technology, intelligentsia – are only to be found in first-world nations. Plus, the constant undercurrent of danger in developing countries gets old.

One of the downsides of being in a less-touristed country than a lot of the rest of Latin America is that it’s very difficult to find postcards. Seems like a natural opening for an enterprising business. Of course I’m not sure whether it would take off since the postal services are incredibly expensive.

Colombia is in dire need of shower heads. Somebody, please send a shipment! Nine times out of ten, even decent hotels will not have an actual head on the shower, it will just be the end of the spigot sticking out of the wall. But I was psyched to get hot water when I came up to the mountains – most of Central America and the coast of Colombia has no hot water. Forget taking a bath, though, unless you want to pay for a Radisson.

I found out why similar businesses group near each other, despite the competition being bad for them. It’s called path dependence. From an article in The New Yorker that Rissie so kindly sent me:

Paul Krugman received a Nobel Prize in Economics in part for showing that trade patterns and the geographic location of industrial production are path-dependent. The first firms to get established in a given industry attract suppliers, skilled labor, specialized financing, and physical infrastructure. This entrenches local advantages that lead other firms producing similar goods to set up business in the same area – even if prices, taxes, and competition are stiffer. “The long shadow cast by history over location is apparent at all scales, from the cluster of costume jewelry firms in Providence to the concentration of 60 million people in the Northeast Corridor,” Krugman wrote in 1991.

In Colombia there is what I perceive to be a basic ignorance of other cultures. Perhaps it’s just the unenlightened people that I am usually in the midst of. Anyone black is called “Negro”, even to their face. Anyone with Asian features is called “Chino”. This must have driven Uyen crazy, being a Vietnamese-American. Anyone white speaking English is called “gringo”, even if they’re Northern European.

Speaking of uneducated working-class people, these are the people I most interact with – the shopkeepers, hotel desk clerks, bus drivers. It makes sense why I have such trouble understanding them – they speak with a lot of slang and slurry, dropped consonants. On occasions that I have interacted with highly educated “professionals”, I can understand them much more clearly.

Although TV channels often show American movies, they are usually dubbed, although not always. But whereas in Central America I could always find CNN, I have yet to see it here. But quite often they have Fox News – what a twisted view of my country they’re getting! I wonder who is paying for that to be shown here.

Coming into Colombia from Central America was the first time I had seen emergency exits in months. Mind you, they’re only in the large government buildings. Fire extinguishers and other codes of safety are not practiced too widely here, although definitely more than in C.A. What really worries me is the amount of places that have only one exit, or none at all. Most hotels chain their doors at night, such that if there was a fire and the person with the key were indisposed, we would all die. I’ve actually tried getting out late at night a couple of times, but couldn’t without waking up the family to unchain the damn door.

Colombia has an excellent system of addresses. “30-41 15th St” means that the building is on 15th St between 30th and 31st. (The 41 is the exact house number). This is true in every town and city throughout the country. Furthermore, nearly every house and business actually has their number posted – a far cry from North America, where it can be sheer futility trying to find an address.

Cars are even less respectful of pedestrians than in NYC. Hard to believe, I know. In New York drivers pretend to ignore you, but won’t actually run you over. Here they really don’t see you, or in some cases actually try to run you down.
Someday I will live where people come first and cars are relegated to the fringes, if at all. (Yes, I realize this is just as much of a pipe dream as the poster mom had up on the wall when we were kids: “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need and the navy has to hold a bake sale to buy a battleship.”)

Speaking of cars – many of them are outfitted with horns that sound like sirens. Clever, but isn’t that like the boy who cried wolf? I’m surprised the government doesn’t crack down on this.

If I lived in Colombia, I’m not sure I’d ever get used to seeing military rolling down the street. Not sure that I’d want to get used to that.

For a country with such a violent recent past, I’ve been surprised to see that many of the private security guards as well as beat cops only carry a billy club and no pistol. Contrast with Central America, where they typically wear bullet-proof vests and carry a shotgun.

Apparently there aren’t equivalents to the Miranda laws we have in the States. Cops can (and do) pull people over at random, frisk them and search their vehicle, without any probable cause.

Speaking of cops – there aren’t cop cars per se. They either ride en masse in vans or trucks, or in pairs on motorcycles. The motorcycles look like dirt bikes – knobby tires, high suspension, no side bags. And there are always two to a bike. Can you imagine telling North American motorcycle cops they have to ride bitch on each other’s bikes? Ha!

There must be a helmet law here, since everyone wears them. However most people wear them tilted back on the head, so the chin brace is balanced on the forehead. Obeying the letter of the law, but definitely not the spirit. Besides the obvious fact that the helmet would come flying off the moment they need it, it looks pretty silly. I’ve even seen cops wearing their helmets this way.

I finally learned why all motorcyclists wear vests emblazoned in huge letters with their licence plate numbers. During the violent years 10, 15, 20 years ago, most drive-by shootings were committed by motorcyclists. So a law was passed to make it easy to see their tags.

Colombians are not terribly good at queuing, although it’s definitely not as bad as in parts of Asia. For someone used to patiently waiting for a clerk to be finished with whatever s/he is doing before recognizing and helping me, I could be standing there all day. Generally, whoever marches up with the loudest voice gets attended to first. Oh, and if the clerk is already in the middle of helping me and someone with a louder voice marches up, she drops what she’s doing and helps him instead. More accurately, she multitasks. Which sometimes works, sometimes not. Teaches me patience, that’s for sure.

Many drugs that are sold by prescription only in the U.S. are available over the counter here, which I love. It goes back to that personal responsibility thing – as an adult, I should be able to make my own choices, be entrusted to do my own research and know what I’m taking – I don’t need the state coddling me. Everything from malaria meds to Voltaren to… you name it.

Most people don’t get braces until they’re older. It’s common to see people in their 20’s or 30’s with braces, but hardly any teens or pre-teens have braces.

Tower Records and Blockbuster Video are alive and well here! (They went bankrupt in the States.)

There are a ton of public holidays here, more than in many countries.

There is a lack of integrity with respect to signs and follow-through. I can’t tell you the number of places that proudly advertise, “open 24/7”, only to be closed. Or the restaurant menus that list a dozen dishes but it turns out only two of them are actually available. Or the “fresh-squeezed orange juice” that turns out to be Tang. This obviously is not limited only to Colombia, but it bugs me wherever it’s found in the world. How are we going to change the world if we can’t even keep our word and do what we say?

Another somewhat related trait that I suspect is common to much of Latin America: the concept of a universal, unchanging, ultimate truth simply does not exist. Things are true until they’re not true. Things are described as being true when they’re really more of a belief or a guess. If someone doesn’t know the answer to something, they’ll make up an answer instead of simply saying that they don’t know. But when confronted with the new reality that confronts their old reality, they simply shrug and say that it was true for them in that moment, but it’s no longer true now.

Again, something common to the rest of the world, but it continues to stun me – people throwing trash on the street without a second thought. Or worse, in pristine nature. Finished with that bottle of coke and bag of potato chips? Just toss it out the window. OK, so maybe they don’t care about environmentalism or what the earth will look like in 100 years, but they’re trashing their own back yard! They have to live with that garbage staring them in the face every day. I guess they must not see it. Or must not have the same differentiation between beauty and ugliness that is so vital to my world view.

“Mucho gusto” is one of the first phrases you learn when studying Spanish. It’s said when meeting someone for the first time, meaning “Nice to meet you.” Only in Colombia, it’s used for everything – the same way the Italians use “prego” – for “can I help you,” “you’re welcome,” “here you go” – service people say it 10 times a minute. It sounds funny to me, since to my ear they’re constantly saying how pleased they are to meet me. I wonder if it’s used this way in other countries.

When I checked into my hotel today, I heard and felt crunching as I sat down on the bed. Then I smelled it. I’m sleeping on a straw bed!

Written by in: Colombia | Tags: ,

2 Comments »

  • Adriana says:

    I totally agree with you about the fix-it culture – I think it is one of the biggest benefits of the relatively high cost of electronics in Colombia – people fix things. It’s awesome and inspiring. Think of how much stuff we could avert from our landfills (and how much longer they might last), and how many jobs could be created if we actually fixed things instead of tossing them out at the first sign of trouble…

  • Paul says:

    Just read you whole Colombia blog. Awesome! We’re heading to Colombia for a 2 month trip later this year. Thanks for sharing so much, I really appreciate it.

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